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Hyper-convergence extends to new uses with all-flash options

Flash storage has reached a crossroads, where lower prices and greater capacity have led a growing number of hyper-converged infrastructure products to include all-flash storage.

If faced with the choice of buying a Chevrolet Corvette or a Toyota Corolla for the daily commute to work, there is a lot to consider: price, practicality, gas mileage and maybe even the color.

But make the price for both cars just about the same, and that gives you an idea of the thinking behind recent changes for hyper-convergence, where an increasing number of products has emerged with all-flash storage.

This February, the Mississippi Department of Revenue (DOR) replaced EMC VNXe3100 and VNXe3300 storage systems with SimpliVity OmniCube hybrid hard disk drive and solid-state drive storage. After considering the all-flash offering from Nutanix Inc., the company chose hybrid storage from SimpliVity Corp., since it would exceed the department's performance requirements at greater than $100,000, said Patrick Welch, network services manager at the Mississippi DOR.

"Obviously, there is a benefit to all flash, but when you are making a purchase of that size, you have to do the pros and cons," Welch said. "[The price of] flash comes down every day; if we did that purchase tomorrow, I'm not sure the answer would be the same."

SimpliVity this week will unveil plans to make available the OmniCube CN-5400-F and OmniStack All-Flash for Cisco Unified Computing System and Lenovo System x in the fourth quarter of this year.

SimpliVity joins Nutanix, VCE, Atlantis Computing, Pivot3 and Gridstore as part of a growing number of vendors that have hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) products with all-flash storage.

In a survey of 400 hyper-convergence buyers conducted by analyst firm Technology Business Research Inc. (TBR) in Hampton, N.H., most aren't interested in an all-flash HCI product, said Krista Macomber, senior analyst at TBR. Instead, users who are still skittish about buying HCI are simply kicking the tires and looking to deploy it for some workloads.

"There has been more activity about bringing flash to hyper-converged, which makes sense when you think about the need to accelerate the performance of these applications," she said.

The market has shifted toward flash storage, which will exceed 50% of storage purchases by 2020, combined with a "very robust" HCI market, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 50% to reach $7 billion by 2020, according to TBR. Those two markets will intersect, and there will be increasing integration, she said.

The hyper-converged driver

The need to update traditional infrastructure -- which is the primary reason the Mississippi DOR went to hyper-convergence -- drives HCI use more than specific storage offerings, she said. Some enterprise buyers don't always plan to buy HCI, but instead look to address a particular application or workload requirement, Macomber said. Customers often start off evaluating traditional infrastructure, but become more familiar with HCI and later make the decision to buy.

"They are focused on the system's ability to meet the performance and capacity requirements of a specific workload," she said.

The lack of all-flash could have been seen as a weak point in the SimpliVity portfolio, said Adam Sekora, director in the office of the CTO at SimpliVity, based in Westborough, Mass.

"Traditionally, flash wasn't meant for everyone. It was for the ultrahigh-demand workloads," he said. "Flash has always been part of SimpliVity's products where common data was deduplicated and compressed," he said.

Flash has reached price parity, and it will become more economical and standard, Sekora said. All-flash HCI will help it push its use into all enterprise workloads, including high-performance databases, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) workloads and everything in between, he said.

For example, all-flash HCI had 10% to 15% better performance versus SimpliVity's hybrid storage for large VDI workloads, according to a test by Login VSI Inc., but it was up to two-and-a-half times the cost, Sekora said. There were a few cases where hybrid storage would have not met a user's needs, he said, including large-scale databases, online data processing, financial applications and medical databases that are sensitive to changes in latency.

No specific pricing information was released by SimpliVity.

Now is the optimal time for price versus performance and capacity, with the price of flash dropping precipitously and capacity going up regularly in past few months making it a "cost-effective play," Sekora said. Although, he doesn't yet have the perfect price-performance point. At the Mississippi DOR, the OmniCube boxes sit alongside an all-flash array from Pure Storage, Welch said, but those belong to a contractor that uses it for applications to support Mississippi's vehicle registration and title system. While Welch said SimpliVity could hit the required I/O, the DOR isn't ready to move to new technology.

Simple, simple, simple

While some IT pros could find fast storage area network or network-attached storage, the draw for all-flash HCI could be the same as it has always been -- increased simplicity, said Eric Slack, senior analyst at Evaluator Group Inc., in Boulder, Colo., and a TechTarget contributor.

"To that extent, it would have some advantages over traditional infrastructure that is networked, complex and rather slow," he said.

Whether something is all-flash or hybrid, it doesn't matter, as long as the box delivers with the performance you need at the price you want to pay.
Eric Slacksenior analyst, Evaluator Group

Plus, all-flash sounds "sexy," and there could be an emotional connection to its purchase, Slack said. Buyers of all-flash products from Pure Storage or IBM FlashSystem who need flash at any cost for transaction data are likely not buying HCI, he said. Traditional storage managers like flash because it eliminates worry about data residency, but that benefit already exists with HCI, because "everything is baked into the storage anyway," he said.

Some users may buy all-flash HCI, but an evaluation may find hybrid storage would work just fine, he said. HCI often offers greater appeal to non-IT buyers who may pay less attention to the specifications of the hardware and more to whether it delivers what's needed for the business.

"Whether something is all-flash or hybrid, it doesn't matter, as long as the box delivers with the performance you need at the price you want to pay," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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